Peaceful, serene, otherworldly. You know, all those cliche terms people throw around about scuba diving. They are all true and yet do not begin to describe the experience. Over the last few years, I have had the great privilege to become part of the Lifewaters dive family in Cozumel, Mexico. Trained by and then finally christened on my first ocean dive during the summer of 2013 and again in June 2014.  Yes, I said family.  It is a group of individuals from all over the country and yet it feels like family. All abilities, all backgrounds, all ages.

As with any new activity, it is important to talk with your physician about any depth limitations you may have. For instance, individuals with implanted devices like shunts or pumps may not be able to descend past a certain point.

Lifewaters is a non-profit scuba organization specializing in Scuba Diving International (SDI) training for both adaptive dive buddies and divers with spinal cord injury. They serve Veterans and civilians with a team that includes medically trained professionals in rehabilitation.

SDI offers courses in Scubility, this includes both diver and adaptive dive buddy programs. Each adaptive diver is classified based on their ability to help themselves and their dive buddy.  Training for adaptive dive buddies includes learning about a wide variety of disabilities and how they impact an individual.

Most people would look at Lifewaters and think, “They are doing something great, something amazing, helping people learn adaptive diving. Giving people that freedom in the water.” Yes, that is very true and very important. I get it, I’m an adaptive diver, and being 60 feet under swimming along with the sea turtles and fish, f-r-e-e-d-o-m. However, to me that is not the greatest gift Lifewaters is giving. If you sit back and watch during an ocean dive, you see a group of people who probably just met working as a team. Learning about each other’s abilities and weaknesses and letting the community and the ocean heal whatever is burdening them. They may not recognize it right away, but it is happening. That is such an amazing thing. Even more amazing is to watch that phenomenon happening between a group of Veterans. Veterans from different branches, different eras, and of different abilities. As the wife of a USAF Veteran, I was touched to see that bond surface and to see how during the dive and since the dive, those Veterans have inspired, encouraged, and challenged my husband. Even if we were never given the chance to dive with those individuals again I truly believe we would continue to remain friends, to share life together.

Diving is so much more than being blown away by the majesty of the underwater world. It’s about bonds, friendship, and teamwork. It’s about remembering that we need each other and can be healed by nature and by the community of people around us.

The boots on the ground in Cozumel for our dive group was the team at Roberta’s Dive Eco-Cozumel Scuba Shack. Once you are underwater diving is lightness, freedom, and joy. But there is some work to get there. The dive shop brought the boats to the dock at Hotel Cozumel. Our dive buddies and the crew lifted us off the dock onto the boat in our wheelchairs. This is not for the faint of heart, lots of trust here. Our group had 2 power chair users who brought manual chairs onto the boat. Once I have been helped into my wetsuit, the crew carries me to the back deck of the boat, and on goes my gear. Since my injury, my legs and bottom float in the water, like a buoy. So to counteract this, I use ankle weights at my knees to keep my hips lower. My husband (an incomplete quadriplegic), however, has the other problem his legs sink like a rock. So we found some neoprene straps that we put around his knees to keep his feet up. You and your dive buddies will have to try different adaptations for what works. Remember, the first few dives you’ll have to tweak things, stick with it!

After I fall into the water, my dive buddy wraps their legs around me and helps me descend to depth. At this point I am independent. I swim and control my own buoyancy to see the most beautiful living creatures one can imagine. I am paralyzed from the waist down, if you have more limited mobility than this your buddy will help you swim and control your buoyancy. Once I surface, the crew lifts me out of the water and back into my chair. For folks who use catheters, don’t drink caffeine or other diuretics prior to diving, cath right before you get in the wetsuit and immediately when you surface. None of the boats we used had accessible bathrooms, and I would wager that is true of the majority of dive boats. Early on after my injury, I learned that if I wanted to keep traveling all over the world, I had to learn to cath from my wheelchair because some of the coolest things in the world are not near accessible bathrooms. This will be a key skill for adaptive diving in most locations.

The crew from Roberta’s Dive Eco-Cozumel are professional, extremely knowledgeable dive masters and so much fun. They have been so open to learning about how to make diving an unforgettable, wonderful experience. Roberta also makes delicious bread during the break between dives, yum!

Adaptive diving is a growing sport with more organizations joining the fun. If you are in the Midwest check out for more information. Open water dives are conducted at Mermet Springs in Southern Illinois which is very accessible. The site includes a lift to get divers into the water and wheelchair accessible bathrooms. Go here to find instructors certified in adaptive diving near you.

Avatar photo Jessi Hatfield (8 Posts)

At age 21 I acquired a spinal cord injury but knew that I couldn't let that stop the passion I had for adventure and exploration. I love exploring new things close to home in St. Louis, and abroad. By day I am a Rehabilitation Counselor helping others gain hope after injury and helping Veterans obtain employment.

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